Is it really fair to compare Penn State University, a very large, land-grant institution that offers low tuition and boasts of an economically diverse student body, with Yeshiva University, a small, expensive private Jewish university?
Not so much, suggests best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker story entitled, “The Order of Things: What College Rankings Really Tell Us.” In the article, Gladwell, whose books (Tipping Point, Blink) and magazine articles often address issues related to social science research, trashed the algorithms U.S. News and World Reports uses to publish its annual “Best Colleges” guide.
To make his point, Gladwell compares the college guide to consumer car ratings or suicide rate measurements. Basically, he claims there is no true way to measure why one school ranks higher on the list than another. He uses Penn State and Yeshiva as examples throughout the piece. Clearly students have very different reasons for attending each of those two schools.
“There is no direct way to measure the quality of an institution,” Gladwell writes, adding it would be useful to create a measurement for “how well a college manages to inform, inspire and challenge students.
“It’s hard to measure the variable you want to rank,” he adds. “Who comes out on top, in any ranking, is really about who is doing the ranking.”
No matter what Gladwell asserts, U.S. News knows its audience. The site recorded more than 11 million visitors the month the 2011 Best College rankings came out. It makes sense. Parents who call us to teach essay- writing to their children want the best education for their kids; students who take our workshops tell us they want to attend the best colleges. But who decides what is best for a particular student?
The algorithm is “flimsy at best,” Gladwell says. He wants readers to question why the Top 20 schools on the list year after year are wealthy, private institutions. Does this mean some of the nation’s top public universities don’t pass muster? This is hardly the case. There are a lot of good colleges, and you should never pick a school based solely on one guide, no matter how popular it is. Do your homework, find the place that fits your goals and your personality. Write compelling essays in your own words and in your own voice so the college admissions teams know who you are. Need help? Contact Wow Writing Workshop to learn how to write an essay that stands out from the crowd.
Read more about Gladwell’s ranking theory by visiting the Colleges that Change Lives website; click here , and then scroll down to the bottom of the page to open the PDF version of the article. Click Best Colleges to see the current U.S. News national guide.